Fun fact: Protein powder isn't just for bodybuilders who spend the majority of their time pumping iron in the weight room. Anyone can benefit from adding more protein into their diet, especially those who are looking to build and tone their muscles. And no — that doesn't mean they're going to be bulging out of your workout gear with too many #gainz.
How Much Protein Do You Actually Need?
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. For a sedentary 140-pound woman, that means she should aim to get 53 grams of protein per day. (Check out this handy calculator for your daily nutrition recommendations.)
Protein powders tend to be especially popular among gymthusiasts for a eason: When you're working out five or six times each week and doing resistance exercises, your protein needs are increased by 50 percent, says Liz Applegate, PhD, director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis.
Dr. Applegate says to get between 15 and 25 grams of protein per meal, whether that's from protein powder or a natural source, such as salmon or Greek yogurt. Usually protein powders have 20 grams or more per scoop, so stick with one — another scoop isn't necessary.
"Your body will break down the extra amino acids, but they'll either be used as fuel or stored as fat. It depends on your energy balance. But more isn't better," Applegate says. "Two scoops can easily add up to around 50 grams of protein, and the body doesn't need that amount in one sitting."
What's the Best Way to Get the Recommended Amount of Protein?
Even though it's best to get your protein from whole food sources, that's not always possible — especially when you're running home from the gym and might not have time for a full meal afterward.
"Whole foods have an advantage in that they provide additional nutrients that won't be in the protein extract product," Applegate says. "If I was to go and eat a protein powder that came from milk, I most likely won't get the vitamin D or calcium the milk would have provided. Those are important things to consider."
For convenience purposes, scooping some protein into a drink or meal can be a great way to reap the benefits without the calories, sugar, fat, and carbs. You just have to make sure you're buying the right kind.
Which Protein Powder Is Right for You?
Protein powders are extracts from different plants and foods, and there's an option for every diet. Instead of eating two to three eggs to get 15 to 20 grams of protein in the morning, you can add a scoop of powder into a smoothie instead.
According to Applegate, the best types of protein are from milk proteins — whey or casein — or albumin from eggs.
"They provide the right amount of the nine essential amino acids to stay healthy," she says. "Just steer clear of hydrolyzed animal protein. What they've used are connective tissues — the hooves and ears. They're inexpensive and easy to get, but it gives you a low-quality protein."
For people who are lactose intolerant or vegetarian, soy protein is the best option and is "just as good for you as chicken or beef," Applegate says. The other plant proteins — pea, hemp, and grain — don't have all the essential amino acids your body needs, so if you decide to go that route you'll need to get the missing nutrients elsewhere.
Another important thing to avoid no matter what type of protein you choose is sugar. There are many protein powders with low- to no-sugar, and if you absolutely need to sweeten up your smoothie or meal, Applegate recommends doing it naturally with fruit or a little honey.
When Should You Use Protein Power to See Workout Results?
If you want to get the most out of your workouts, don't skimp out on protein. No matter what time of the day you squeeze in your sweat session, Applegate says you'll want to get some protein into your body within 30 minutes to an hour afterward — especially after a strength-training workout.